Church groups consistently exempted from accountability on government funds

Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations’ annual report shows over 60% of ministerial exemptions from registration goes to Christian and church organisations.

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Matthew Vella
2 May 2013, 12:00am
President George Abela's (second left) Community Chest Fund and the Maltese archdiocese (Archbishop Paul Cremona, right) continue to enjoy blanket exemption from the Voluntary Organisations' commissioner's register.
President George Abela's (second left) Community Chest Fund and the Maltese archdiocese (Archbishop Paul Cremona, right) continue to enjoy blanket exemption from the Voluntary Organisations' commissioner's register.


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Catholic organisations and beneficiaries of the Community Chest Fund enjoyed blanket exemptions from successive government ministers over the past five years, in a bid to receive grants and financial aid without being enrolled with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations (CVO).

The exemptions, granted by social policy ministers under whom the CVO falls, has allowed church organisations to accept monies and government grants without being regulated or legally accountable - an observation which Commissioner Kenneth Wain said has created a "deficit of public accountability which damages the [voluntary] sector as a whole."

"There is no legal assurance that the non-enrolled part of the voluntary sector is operating honestly and within the financial laws of the country, even when organisations are in receipt of public funds," Wain said, noting that the impasse of the Catholic archdiocese on the enrolment of its own organisations and charities has frozen "desperately needed amendments" to the Voluntary Organisations Act.

Wain wants enrolment to the Office of Voluntary Organisations to be compulsory, if the sector is to become accountable and transparent.

An analysis of the list of exemptions between 2009 and 2012 shows that successive social policy minsters, namely John Dalli, Dolores Cristina, and Chris Said, awarded exemptions to the beneficiaries of the Community Chest Fund, operated by the Office of the President of the Republic, but most notably to Church organisations.

The CCF's beneficiaries, which in the main constitute Church organisations operating on a voluntary basis, have constantly been exempted from registration for the regular Istrina telethon on the Public Broadcasting Services, organised every Christmas, and which amasses hundreds of thousands of euros in donations.

At least 60 exemptions out of a total of 91 were awarded to church or religious lay organisations, as well as: parishes, the Maltese and Gozitan dioceses for the receipt of EU or national government funds, band clubs, and other charitable institutions and clerical charities that support the homeless, orphaned children, the elderly and other vulnerable members of society.

The government regularly dispenses funds through such initiatives like the Good Causes Fund, the Malta Arts Fund, Eco-Gozo, the Overseas Development Aid, NGO co-financing and project selection funds, and others.

However, enrolment with the CVO is not mandatory, and organisations can appeal for a ministerial exemption to receive financial aid without being legally accountable for the monies received.

"The spirit of the Voluntary Organisations Act is that exemptions are granted for special reasons and each case on its own merits. However, this isn't always the case and that, more generally, the law is being consistently misapplied with the manner in which these exemptions are made," Wain noted in his annual report for 2012.

He complained that government was not leading by example, and instead it was dispensing funds using blanket exemptions without justification.

"This way of doing things evidently goes against the intention for any law that provides for Ministerial exemption, namely that the tool should be used sparingly and responsibly, in exceptional and justified cases, on a case by case basis, and that the reason for the exemption should be communicated to the Commissioner, otherwise ministerial discretion is abused and the mechanism made a farce," Wain said.

Wain believes that government policy should not be to indiscriminately issue exemptions "but to insist that organisations applying for funding or other benefits enrol with the Commissioner before they are eligible to apply."




 
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Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.